Development push puts Brazil’s indigenous at risk

Loggers, ranchers, miners and rail lines threaten ancestral lands

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BRASILIA, BRAZIL — For generations, the Awa lived far from the rest of humanity, picking fruit, hunting pigs and monkeys, and following the seasons’ rhythms in their patch of the lush Brazilian Amazon rainforest.

Then the rest of the world found the Awa.

Loggers and ranchers came, cutting into the tribe’s ancestral lands in search of profits. So did a rail line on which trains shuttle tons of iron ore through the forest, from mines in the heart of the Amazon to Atlantic Ocean ports, with much of it headed for Chinese steel mills.

The threat to the Awa grew so grave that it caught the attention of the British-based indigenous rights group Survival International, which designated them “the world’s most endangered tribe” and made their preservation its top campaign priority this year.

While the Awa may face the most immediate threat, tribes across Brazil are locked in the same struggle as they battle loggers, ranchers, miners and farmers who often invade government-demarcated reserves.

Brazil’s maturing economy is driving much of the development, as is renewed strength of the country’s farm sector, which recently pushed through reforms loosening Brazil’s forest protection law.

Watchdog groups say more conflict is inevitable as government-backed projects such as hydroelectric dams and roads bring thousands of settlers to remote areas. Two bills now working their way through Brazil’s National Congress would further open indigenous territory to development and potentially weaken tribes’ hold on their land.

“We’re seeing that the conflicts Indians are having are becoming more potent in recent years, with a series of violent clashes stoked by the agenda of the federal government to develop remote areas,” said Cleber Buzatto, executive director of the Brazil-based indigenous-rights group CIMI.

For the Awa and other tribes, however, contact with the outside world hasn’t just brought threats: Help is also on the way.

Farming concerns

The issue will take center stage during this month’s “People’s Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, a gathering linked to the annual World Social Forum, also in Brazil.

The summit is expected to draw thousands of activists to an alternative to the United Nations’ Rio+20 conference on sustainable development happening in Rio at the same time.

The plight of the formerly isolated Awa even drew the attention of Academy Award-winning actor Colin Firth, who appeared in a Survival International video urging people to contact Brazilian Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo and tell him to send police to protect indigenous reserves.

“This is our chance right now to actually do something,” Mr. Firth says in the clip.

Last Tuesday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff created two new nature reserves, as well as seven indigenous territories in the Amazon, covering thousands of square miles.

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